It’s easy to take the humble towbar for granted. After all, every tow car has one. But not all towbars are suitable for all caravans, and once you start looking, you’ll find a surprising variety of types. How do you make sure you choose the right towbar, and what steps should you take to ensure it is fitted correctly?
This guide fills you in on the towbar essentials you need to know about to help you find the one for you, but if you’re looking for more towing accessories, be sure to take a look at our best caravan sat nav guide too.
Types of towbar to choose from
Swan neck towbar
With a swan neck towbar, the towball on the end of the bar and the bar itself are one piece, with the curve of the bar resembling a swan’s neck. Generally, swan neck towbars are compatible with Al-Ko stabiliser heads, an important point which we’ll come back to in more detail later.
You’ll find flange towbars mainly on commercial vehicles, although they are also fitted to many passenger cars. Here, the towball is bolted to the towbar, rather than being one piece.
One advantage is that this can make it possible to use an accessory, such as a cycle carrier, while towing. But care is needed to make sure this kind of towbar is compatible with caravan stabilisers.
Whether you opt for a swan-neck or flange towbar, they are both available in either fixed or detachable guises.
Detachable bars might cost a little more, but they allow the towbar to be stored when not in use, rather than left open to the elements. Your shins will thank you for choosing a detachable towbar – it’s all too easy to knock your leg against a fixed towbar when loading and unloading the boot.
Electric-swivelling towbars motor into position at the push of a button. Some will go all the way up and down, while others will need to be locked into place by hand.
These have the advantage of keeping the back of the car neat and tidy when you aren’t towing, without the faff of having to get down on your knees to fit the towbar when you’re hitching up a caravan.
This type of bar is typically a factory-fit option, rather than an accessory that can be fitted to a vehicle later.
Points to consider when choosing a towbar
Before 1998, there were no regulations to ensure the safe design and fitting of towbars. Since then, type-approval rules have been in place to ensure they are fit for purpose. Today, bars meeting EC 94/20 Directive or ECE Regulation 55 are approved. Check there’s a type-approval sticker on the bar you select.
Regulation 55 states that the towball should be 350-420mm from the ground when the vehicle is in a laden state.
It’s important to remember that word ‘laden’. If your car is empty, the towbar could well sit above the required height. This doesn’t mean that it’s faulty, or in breach of the regulations. It’s the height when your car is loaded that counts.
The majority of caravans sold in the UK have Al-Ko chassis, and most of those will be fitted with a stabiliser. This dampens side-to-side movements, to help make the van more stable.
The Al-Ko stabiliser hitch is bulkier than a more basic hitch, and it’s important that there’s room for it to move when you are cornering or driving over an uneven surface.
For the AKS 3004 stabiliser, a 50mm towball is needed. There should be 60mm of vertical clearance from the centre of the towball to the curved part of the bar, to allow articulation of the stabiliser hitch head.
There should also be 68mm between the centre of the ball and the car’s rear bumper. You can find more information in the relevant Al-Ko handbook.
Most swan necks will be fine, but some flange towbars may require modification.
Finding a fitter
With such a safety-critical component, we would always strongly recommend employing a professional fitter, rather than attempting to fit the towbar yourself.
The National Trailer and Towing Association has a directory of approved towbar fitters, who must meet the required standard for customer service and quality of work.
Check the car can tow before you buy
Whether you are buying one of the best caravan tow cars on the market or a pre-owned option, make sure it has been approved to tow, and that it’s heavy enough to make a suitable match for your van.
As most readers will know, both major caravanning clubs recommend towing a caravan weighing no more than 85% of the car’s kerbweight, especially if you are new to towing.
If you are buying a new car, you should be able to specify either factory-fit towing gear, or a dealer-fit accessory. Some cars have higher towing limits with factory-fit towing gear, as extra cooling is fitted on the production line to cope with the demands of towing.
When you are shopping for a used tow car, check the VIN plate for the car’s Gross Vehicle Weight and Gross Train Weight.
These will be the first and second weights of the four you will find listed. If the second figure is blank, the car hasn’t been approved for towing.
Be aware that most recent Škoda models aren’t approved for towing, unless they leave the factory with either towbar preparation or factory-fit towing gear – so be particularly careful if you are considering a used tow car of this brand
As well as the towbar, you’ll need an electric socket to supply power to the caravan.
Caravans have been supplied with 13-pin electrics since 2008, although older tourers will have seven-pin connections. Adapters are available if your car and van don’t use the same plug system.
Some electrical kits are ‘universal’ – they should work with the majority of cars. But we’d always recommend using a vehicle-specific kit.
With this type of towing electrics, the car’s systems are aware a trailer has been attached, which turns on trailer stability control (if fitted) and should disable any driver assistance systems that would be confused by the presence of the van, such as rear parking sensors and blind-spot monitoring.
Check that the electrics will power the caravan’s fridge and leisure battery, as well as the road lights.
Take a look at our guide to the standout caravan towing mirrors for more on another important piece of towing kit too.
Future Publishing Limited, the publisher of Practical Caravan, provides the information in this article in good faith and makes no representation as to its completeness or accuracy. Individuals carrying out the instructions do so at their own risk and must exercise their independent judgement in determining the appropriateness of the advice to their circumstances and their own skill level. Individuals should take appropriate safety precautions and be aware of the risk of electrocution when dealing with electrical products. To the fullest extent permitted by law, neither Future nor its employees or agents shall have any liability in connection with the use of this information. You should check that any van warranty will not be affected before proceeding with DIY projects.
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